Challenge 2025 Breakouts: A Time to Sharpen and Encourage Florida Baptists

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ORLANDO— The Challenge 2025 gathering at First Baptist Church Orlando kicked off with worship and an encouraging warm welcome by Tommy Green, executive director treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention and David Uth, First Orlando’s pastor.

During the first of the day’s two breakout sessions, participants dispersed across the First Orlando campus and filled into their designated rooms ready to be sharpened and encouraged in the areas of Brazilian, Hispanic, Haitian and Asian ministry; urban, suburban, and rural contexts; missions, church planting, next generation, church revitalization, technology and church finances.

Josiah Brondyke and Billy Cronin are new next generation pastors at First Baptist Church in Port Richie. On their way to a next gen breakout session, they shared that they hoped to accomplish two main things during their time in Orlando.

“I’m new to Florida and new to the pastorate so I hope to make some connections that will hopefully lead to partnerships and mentorships,” said Brondyke.

“As a new pastor I’m looking to learn from my seniors and other young pastors who have more experience,” added Cronin. “I want to sharpen my skills and be encouraged by the ministry others are doing.”

Collegiate Challenge

Challenge 2025 GatheringAt the Collegiate Challenge breakout session, next gen leaders and pastors heard from Trent Roseman, next gen pastor at First Baptist Church in Tampa; Eddie Gilley, Baptist Collegiate Ministries (BCM) director in Gainesville; Jay Sanders, BCM director in the Tampa area and Barry Sproles, director of BCM in the Tallahassee area.

“I want to encourage you today in your ministry and in your personal life,” said Roseman. In their ministry, Roseman encouraged the pastors to align their next ministry under the church’s vision while organizing it according to their personal convictions when it came to preaching and teaching.

He encouraged them to bathe their ministry in prayer and to build a bond with their community outside the four walls. In their personal lives, Roseman urged the leaders and pastors to prioritize their own families, trust their calling and watch their life that they not fall to temptation and embarrass themselves, families and church.

Hispanic Challenge

Just a few doors down from the next generation challenge breakout, Hispanic pastors and leaders heard from Alberto Ocaña, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Northside in Hialeah; Israel Martin, First Baptist Orlando en Español; Hugh Redmon, minister to Hispanics at First Baptist Church in Panama City; and Frank Rodriguez, pastor of Bethesda Baptist Church in Miami.

Each pastor shared how their individual churches have faced challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic while also presenting them with unique opportunities to share the gospel.

“Our task now is to continue to share the Gospel in new and creative ways, gather for worship whether online or in person, bring back those who left and encourage those who are still coming and serving,” said Ocaña.

Challenge 2025 GatheringHe also encouraged pastors to “ride the waves of opportunity” that come their way like being able to share the gospel along with passing out food boxes or ministering to those who have been unable to return home because of the pandemic.

“We were approached by a business owner who had to close his shuttle service and needed somewhere to park his buses; we let him park them for free in our church parking lot,” shared the Hialeah pastor. “Then we were told about a group of young Argentinians who were unable to return home and were running out of money for food and necessities. So we borrowed those buses parked in our lot and shuttled the tourists to our church to feed them, help them figure out their lodging and share the gospel with them.”

Martin encouraged pastors to continue to leverage online tools to take the gospel to their city and the nations. “If the Hispanic population of the United States was a country it would be the second largest Hispanic country,” he said. “We are a special place because the nations are here among us.”

More importantly, Martin added, an online presence makes the church even more accessible to people who may be hesitant to attend in person or who have questions before they visit. A question-and-answer option imbedded into online services is a great opportunity, he said, to give Bible-based answers to any topic that someone watching may have a question about. “We have to take the answers the Bible offers outside the four walls of the church. Everyone needs to know what God says in his word.”

Asian Challenge

Challenge 2025 GatheringWith more than 80 congregations of Asian descent within the Florida Baptist Convention, several Asian pastors gathered to challenge one another and discuss how to better minister to their communities during the Challenge 2025 Gathering in Orlando.

The group was facilitated by Lito Lucas, pastor of the Philippine International Christian Fellowship in Lakeland, a mission of Lakes Church, and Dan Santiago, pastor of Covenant Christian Church in Jacksonville.

The group of Florida Baptist Asian congregations include Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Indian, Karen, Cambodian, Japanese and Thai, according to the facilitators.

An estimated half million Asians live in the state, said Santiago, with persons from India and Pakistan representing the largest numbers.

Lucas said by partnering together as a fellowship, the Asian congregations could have a more active role in church planting and providing resources to help reach other Asian churches in the state.

“Many more workers are needed, we could start the conversation and start a fire,” he said.

“We recognize and understand the challenges,” Santiago said. “How do we implement a strategy knowing we are all so different and must be contextualized to do missions?”

The pastors agreed that from the Challenge 2025 Gathering they “have started a conversation and can move forward.”

This could be the spark needed, Lucas said. “revival starts with three people and the fire grows.”

Church Revitalization Challenge

More than 120 Florida Baptists gathered in Henry Chapel, on the campus of First Baptist Church Orlando, to hear words of encouragement and support during the Church Revitalization Challenge during the Challenge 2025 Gathering.

Leading the morning meeting were Phillip Hamm, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Palmetto; Brian Stowe, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Plant City; and facilitators Al Fernandez and Gary Townsend, both regional catalysts for the convention.

Throughout the panel discussion, speakers urged pastors to be open to restructuring, reorganizing, and refocusing the church to its current Biblical context.

With COVID affecting so many local churches across the Sunshine State, pastors attending the panel were thirsty to hear encouragement and practical ways to revitalize their local churches.

“Post-COVID, we are all in a church revitalization mode,” Hamm said. “We have all had to learn how to make adjustments.”

Arriving onto the scene in June 2011 and sensing that First Palmetto was constantly in a “season of winter” and “treading water,” Hamm reminded attendees there is a season and time for everything.

“There is a time to prepare the field and there is a time to harvest,” he said.

While telling story after story of his beginning days at the church, Hamm shared that the church began their revitalization process by prioritizing what was most important to them and doing it with excellence.

By focusing on “doing the next right thing” each day and having a lack of staff, Hamm led his church to lean heavily on volunteers and made Sunday morning worship a priority by hiring a worship pastor. From the very beginning, the church made a choice to excel at one thing.

“I decided that the church was going to be about one thing – we are going to be good at sharing the love of Christ with our community and beyond,” he said. “That was our one thing.”

Stowe referenced 1 Cor. 3:10-15 and encouraged pastors to grow with a proper, biblical foundation on Jesus Christ. He urged them to remember that they are not the foundation of their church, but to consider the building materials of their church and to only answer and be accountable to the Lord.

After arriving to Plant City, a church that was over 150 years old and seemingly healthy, Stowe quickly realized that the average age of members was 51 and getting older each year. He knew the church needed to undergo a process of revitalization and understanding who they wanted to be and reach in their future.

“When making changes, do it as you love your people.” Stowe said. “Tell your people what is going on, spend time with people, and paint the picture as you listen and love.”

Both Stowe and Hamm reminded those in attendance to not measure success from the world’s standards, but in obedience to the Lord.

“We all need church revitalization,” Stowe said. “At the end of the day, you have one question to answer – did I obey the Lord?”

With most attending the breakout session were pastors of smaller congregations, questions from the floor revolved heavily on how to take a small church, that has become even smaller due to COVID, to become a church growing not only in attendance but more resourceful and excellent with what they currently offer.

“Don’t use someone else’s success as a prescription for your church,” Hamm said. “Do what the Lord has called you to do.”

Stating that there is no silver bullet or perfect blueprint for church revitalization, both Hamm and Stowe shared that a healthy and revitalized church is one that is teaching God’s Word, facilitating healthy relationships, sharing the gospel, and encouraging members to serve and attend small groups.

“Don’t confuse the size of your church with its effectiveness in the kingdom,” Hamm said. “Stay faithful.”

Urban Church Challenge

Around 25 people gathered for the afternoon session of the Urban Challenge at the Challenge 2025 event on the campus of First Baptist Church Orlando. Slated to speak on the panel were Dwight Woods, pastor of Family of God Baptist Church in Panama City; Theo Johnson, pastor of Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Miami; and Patrick Coats, Florida Baptists’ Black Multicultural Catalyst, facilitator.

The Urban Challenge sought to encourage pastors to lead like Jesus in a changing culture, moving the church in and beyond a pandemic.

After arriving to his church just nine months before Hurricane Michael, Woods was forced to learn how to rebuild, grow, and move his church forward in a difficult time of brokenness within their Panama City community. Referencing John 4 when Jesus meets the woman at the well, Woods challenged those in attendance to meet people where they are and walk alongside them.

Challenge 2025 Gathering“You can’t do urban ministry and not pour yourself into people,” he said. “If we are going to do ministry well, we need to meet people right where they are.”

Miami pastor Johnson told pastors to shift their perspective and to move along with the current changes their churches have been forced into by reevaluating their thoughts and expectations. Insisting that the message of the gospel should never change, he told pastors to look outside of their current methods to be a “church beyond the walls.”

“God could have allowed this pandemic to occur in order to teach us to rely on Him,” he said. “We must shift from our thoughts and expectations in order to advance His kingdom.”

With a desire to communicate that “Florida is better together,” Coats and several other pastors have launched a state-wide tour to various Black churches in the convention. Serving the purpose of listening and learning together, Coats hopes that the tour provides an opportunity to come alongside one another in unity and grow together in love.

“We were created to be in community and fellowship together,” Coats said. “We are to love one another, talk with one another, and move forward together in Jesus Christ.”

Attendees left heartened serve selflessly and faithfully where God has planted them and be unified in the common mission to build the kingdom.

“We have to build the kingdom, and we have to do it together,” said Jon Matthews, missional strategist for the Clearwater-based Suncoast Baptist Association.

Technology Challenge

After ramping up an online presence during the 2020 quarantine, why should churches continue to host virtual services now that congregations are gathering in person?

That was the question posed during the Technology Challenge breakout session held at the Challenge 2025 Gathering Feb. 16 at First Baptist Church in Orlando.

“To win one,” said David Uth, pastor of the host church, citing 1 Cor. 9:19. “To do whatever it takes to win one.”

“You don’t need another reason,” he said. “You’ve got to get online and get in this incredible opportunity to take the gospel to all people.”

Challenge 2025 GatheringFirst Orlando has identified an online community waiting to hear the gospel, he said. “They won’t hear your message until you take them the message.”

The church has allocated staff to the online ministry. Jason Hodges was employed as executive director of service planning and Korey Deck now serves as pastor of the online campus.

During the breakout session, together with Uth, they offered tips and advice to churches:

–Commit money and people to do it with excellence.

— Get comfortable doing online services, “for God’s sake.”

–The internet is amoral, morality is determined by the people who use it.

–Ask two questions: what is your strategy and who is your audience? The answers will determine what you will do.

–Find common ground and connect emotionally.

–Remember the internet is filled with lost people, an unreached people group.

–Be transparent and authentic.

–Look at the camera and see people.

–Take a Sunday off and watch the online service.

–Maintain eye contact even while praying.

–Present an invitation to accept Christ as Savior to online community and provide opportunity for a response.

–Don’t be afraid to fail.

–Make sure statistics presented are correct and the sermon is original.

–Designate someone to engage with online community during the service.

An afternoon technology breakout session highlighted how to achieve a better online presence. It featured three church leaders: Julie Oviedo, creative arts pastor, Wayside Baptist Church, Miami; Aaron Still, church planting director, and Amanda Levy, media and communications, First Baptist Church, Melbourne.

Complied by Keila Diaz, Jessica Pigg and Barbara Denman

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